Finding My Stride at Long Branch Shelter
I trudged over the Georgia state line into North Carolina. I was so happy I kissed the tree that marked the border. It was pouring — I was wet, my pack was wet, my rain jacket might as well have been a wet sock.
My initial trail family was taking a zero, and my stubborn dumbass decided today was the day I needed to regain my rugged individualism on the trail. During my hike that day, I was feeling confident and proud that I set forth into the rain, a brave independent soul. And now, approaching an empty campsite, sopping wet, shivering, while my friends enjoyed a cozy hotel room ten miles back — I felt scared shitless and very alone.
From Bad to Worse
I had never camped without other people around. Fuck. The wind was picking up. The leaves on the trees flashed their pale undersides. Double fuck. I crouched over my stove and attempted to light it to make myself a hot dinner to warm up. The lighter sputtered and died. Triple fuck.
Fog was rolling into the campsite. It was settled in the middle of an eerie valley that looked like the perfect site for the murder of a 22 year old hiker or a bear mauling.
I took a breath. You can do this. Chill out. No one is going to murder you. Just feed yourself, make your tent and go to sleep, I thought.
I gave up on making myself dinner and began to slurp down meat packets like gogurts while I did my stretches. These consisted of a few different squats with a stretch band, and rolling my foot out with a cork roller ball. This probably looked very odd as I shoveled my face with meat and cheese sticks in a panic while doing walking squats, which would’ve driven off anyone who was going to camp there anyways. I laughed a little, imagining how I looked from an outside perspective.
After my inventive way of eating dinner, I began to wrap up my food in my stuff sack and throw my bear line. My hands were going numb, and it was hard to even tie the knots around a rock to throw over. With each throw I missed, I began to panic more. The more I panicked, the more throws I missed. It was a positive feedback loop from hell — involving me cursing and ducking over the rocks that swung back my way. When I finally was able to hook it over — my food sack was too heavy for me to pull up. The rope was too wet and too thin to get a good grasp on it, and I couldn’t get it past waist height. I laughed and put my head in my hands. Even a baby bear could grab it. The wind was picking up and I needed to get into my tent soon. I gave up and hooked it to a tree in a half ass effort.
I set up my tent quickly and crawled inside of it, sighing. Finally, I was within my tent. No more spooky valley. No more failed bear hangs. No more shitty lighters.
Then my tent collapsed on top of me. I scrambled past the thin wet fabric that clung to my skin like plastic wrap and back out into the rain. I laughed again. “Are you fucking kidding me?!” I yelled at the empty woods. “I get it, I get it! You’re teaching me a lesson, Jesus Christ!”
So I set my tent up again, crawled back inside, got into dry clothes and did more exercises until I got warm and fell asleep. I fell asleep, trying to appreciate the rare solitude on the A.T. rather than fixate on the rustling sounds around my tent that were most definitely tiny bears going to eat me. Something another hiker, No Name, had said stuck with me. “When you hear a sound at night, notice it, and then let it pass. Don’t latch on too heavily to anything. They’re just sounds, just let them continue on.”
The Morning After
The next morning, a patch of blue sky winked at me from a gap in the rain clouds. I jumped up and down, screaming, completely ecstatic. I haven’t gone that insane over a patch of blue sky since I was a kid.
I continued hiking alone for most of the day, stopping to admire snails and help worms cross the trail. I was planning on doing a low mileage day and stopping at one of the shelters — it was supposed to thunderstorm, and my gossamer gear tent was already wet from the night before. It had sprinkled condensation all over my sleeping bag and clothes, and I wasn’t looking forward to that again.
I came across standing Indian shelter at the top of a mountain. The wind sucked a tarp in and out of one of its sides. Storm clouds swirled overhead. I groaned. This is not where I wanted to be in a thunderstorm. The storm was supposed to come around two. It was one o’clock. I was beginning to feel marginally fucked. A hiker next to me voiced the same concerns.
I had two options: push onwards and flirt with lightning, or hang back and have a sleepless night. The tarp sucked inward again, as if responding to my thoughts. Fuck it. I decided to push onwards.
I pushed forward at a pace I hadn’t allowed myself to test yet. I was still nervous about my hip recovering from its pre-trail injury, but I was more nervous about the thunderstorm hitting when I was on a ridge line of a mountain. I saw the same hiker I had seen in the shelter earlier. In a very cheesy fashion, he yelled “you got it fireball!! Burn the trail down!!” It was all I needed to push my pace faster. (While thinking about how I wanted to form a more synergistic bond with the trail rather than burning it down.)
Dead trees loomed before me on the ridge line like skeleton fingers jutting into the dark thunder clouds. Sweeping vistas of north Carolina’s mountain range flashed next to me, and I stole quick glances to my sides, regretting I wasn’t able to stay for longer. I careened down the mountain side, manifesting that I was a hiking god, and my feet fit perfectly between rocks like mountain goat hooves. I focused intently on not twisting my ankles. The majority of my thoughts boiled down to “speedy, speedy, speedy, thunder bad.” I thought about the joints and tendons that made up my ankle, and the fluid motion of my heel to toe stride. Which worked — after I had twisted my ankles three times already.
Each time I twisted my ankle, I took it as a sign that the trail wanted me to stop and eat something. The general sequence of events would go: I twist my ankle, curse, fall, quickly prop my feet up on a nearby tree to elevate my hurt ankle, and then open my Fanny pack and start eating something. This all happens within two minutes. It’s a very odd sight. But very productive! It will be funny if twisting my ankle classically conditions me to want a snack.
Eventually, through tumbling and snacking and manifesting — I made it to the next shelter. I had covered 15 miles that day, when I had only intended to cover 8! And my body felt alright. The miles were becoming easier, and I was becoming more confident.
At the shelter, I met American james, British james and Brett. Eventually, doc (another lad from across the pond) showed up. American james loved to make fires at the end of each day. It was relieving to not only stumble across a shelter, but a warm fire to dry my clothes and myself by. We settled around it and joked about different disgusting habits we’d picked up on trail (mostly me talking about the gross things I’d done on trail.) Both Jameses looked at me in horror as I casually talked about wiping my ass with a piece of cardboard I found in a privy and using a spork I found on the side of a shelter. I was fortunate to already have a trail name after telling them those stories. (Speculative trail names ranged from Patient Zero to Butt Scratcher. Understandable, as I am currently inside a porta potty, barefoot.)
We all hung our food on the same line. Doc showed up, and set up his tent directly under the bear hang. Which he noticed after he looked up. We all got a good laugh out of this, and went to bed in the shelter (except doc.) “Goodnight!! Don’t let the bears bite!” I laughed from inside.
I was shocked at how quickly the trail had changed. Call me crazy or a weird hippie, but I decided to trust in the trail that it would lead me to more friends — and it did. The night before I was alone, cold, wet and missing the friends I had made. Suddenly, just the night after, I was warm, dry and sitting around a fire with good friends.
I was so worried I wouldn’t be able to find more great friends after I left the first ones I made — and then I did! The night just after that, we would all hit 100 miles and a trail angel would bring us some beer.
I decided to follow a hiking pace that felt comfortable to me, and do what I felt was the right choice for my hike, and the trail provided me with exactly what I needed, when I needed it. The first night, it tested my resolve, and allowed me to see that I was strong enough to be alone. The second night, it gave me friends and a fire to relax by.
Finding My Stride
As I write this from a bean bag next to a wood stove in The Barn A.T. Hiker Hostel, I am realizing that the trail is teaching me how to more confidently follow my own path. Just like in life, we will all follow different paths, and move through the world at a different pace. Friends will appear into our lives, and disappear almost as quickly. This does not have to be a sad thing. They will reappear somewhere down the trail. The trail and life will provide you with friends as long as you continue to follow your own path. If you change your pace to accommodate someone else’s (whether going slower or faster) you risk missing out on some incredible parts of your own journey. Everyone moves at a different pace. No one is better or worse than the other. We’re all just walking through life, one step at a time, and the most beautiful moments are the brief ones where we connect at the same pace, and share a few laughs over a warm fire before continuing on in the morning. There will always be someone new to meet that will soon become an old friend. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll run into someone you already know. They’re just around the bend — all you have to do is keep walking.
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